“April 1865” was a fitting book for a president leading a nation in crisis. “Presidents derive solace as well as insight from how other presidents have navigated through difficult times,” Mr. Winik comments.
Mr. Obama, he notes, looks to Lincoln and Franklin D. Roosevelt for guidance through the current crises. He already has helped sales of Doris Kearns Goodwin’s “Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln” “enormously,” Mr. Winik points out.
Of “Netherland’s” author, Mr. Winik says, “In Obama, he’s getting a twofer. It’s the president of the United States and a highly successful writer and author to boot. It’s pretty cool.
“Every author wants the president, whoever the president is, to read their book,” he continues. “No matter what party you’re of and what party the president is of, the president is the president for all the American people. And further, the face to the rest of the world.”
That’s why reporters from around the world wanted to talk to Mr. Winik when Mr. Bush was photographed reading his book. They had a rare look inside the mind of a president.
Perhaps, then, by telling the world he’s reading a tale of multinationals coping with the post-Sept. 11 world, Mr. Obama is sending a signal that America is no longer willing to go it alone on the international stage.
Closer to home, Mr. Obama could help make literature cool again. His large base of young supporters might start picking up his reading recommendations that don’t have the word “Lincoln” in the title.
“Laura Bush certainly promoted books and started the festival in D.C.,” notes Russell Perreault, Vintage and Anchor books vice president and director of publicity, referring to the National Book Festival. “It would be fantastic to have someone like President Obama promoting books and reading in general. It’d be fantastic if he’d pick one a month from now — the President Obama Book Club.”
Mr. Perreault recalls that Mrs. Bush told a reporter her husband was reading a D.C.-set thriller by Stephen L. Carter, “The Emperor of Ocean Park.” Most recent presidents didn’t seem to make much time for fiction, though.
“President Bush certainly didn’t [read] many novels; he read mostly history. President Clinton, he read policy books. He was a great policy wonk,” Mr. Winik says.
Isn’t it good for a struggling industry that the president is making time to read a contemporary novel?
“I think it’s nice the president is making time for my contemporary novel,” Mr. O’Neill quips.
More seriously, he continues, “It’s a kind of general trend amongst pragmatically oriented males of a certain age that they drift out to nonfiction. Men in their 40s will do that. They become less susceptible to fiction. He’s the number-one fortysomething-year-old male in the country.”
What he’s signaling to that result-oriented demographic, Mr. O’Neill explains, is that there’s nothing inherently frivolous about fiction.
“If you’re serious about complexity and coming to terms with the contradictions of the world, you would probably read fiction in addition to works of history and political theory,” the novelist says. “The ultimate unit in politics is the human being. Novels identify with our fellow humans and try to understand what they’re about. I think that a president who, in addition to facts and figures, would grasp the human unit in its fictional complexity is an encouraging figure.”
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